July 24, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sometimes it is surprising what people will ask a pastor. Most pastors field their fair share of biblical and theological questions. Often people will call with a follow-up query to a topic that cropped up in a sermon. Those are the kinds of pastoral inquiries one would expect. Once in a while, though, pastors get asked for advice on matters about which they don’t know a whole lot more than the next person. As most of us pastors would probably confess, when such unusual requests get made, you feel ill-equipped to say or do anything.
This happened to Jesus in Luke 12. A stranger approaches Jesus with a practical matter involving a family argument. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!” It’s not even a question, is it? This is a demand, and Jesus seems a bit upset about it. “Mister,” Jesus says, “I don’t know who you are or what you’re talking about! I am not a judge and have no authority here at all.” It was a curt retort.
But you can’t blame Jesus. After all, this section in Luke’s gospel contains Luke’s closest parallel to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is teaching important spiritual matters. In fact, he had just finished giving a lovely set of instructions to the disciples about how they are to rely on the Holy Spirit when they face opposition. In terms of the gospel, this is very important advice. But that only makes this stranger’s interruption the more striking. If I am midway through a lecture on the fruit of the Spirit, I will not be very happy if someone raises his hand to ask if I have any advice to give on how to do estate planning!
The only explanation for someone’s making such an intrusion is that this person is preoccupied with money. This stranger had not really been listening to Jesus at all but had been ruminating on his financial woes. So the moment there was a lull in Jesus’ speech, he burst in with this inheritance question. Jesus was not pleased at this interruption but he recognized what was going on here and so immediately offers some warnings about greed.
What’s more, Jesus uses the occasion to offer up a very brief parable. But when you think about it, this is a rather unusual parable. Most of Jesus’ parables illustrate some aspect of the kingdom, of grace, of salvation. This parable, however, is more generic. In fact, the main and only character of the parable does not have any obvious connection to anything spiritual whatsoever. He looks to be a secular figure in every sense.
But it is precisely this secular atmosphere and the complete isolation of this rich man that delivers this parable’s punch. This man is completely out there on his own, doing his own thing with no reference to anything or anyone else. He is, Jesus says pointedly, a “fool.” Biblically speaking, that is a powerful word that plays not an individual note on the larger biblical keyboard but in fact whole chords. In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament a fool was anyone who fails to notice how the world works, thus adapting himself accordingly. Fools are the ones who spit into the wind, who saw off the branch they’re sitting on, who are constantly trying to row their boat against the current because they simply do not pay attention to how life works. Fools are also un-teachable. It’s not only that they fail to make good observations on what works and what doesn’t, fools also refuse to listen when others point these things out for them.
Fools, the old adage has it, are often in error but never in doubt. In fact, the more foolish a person is, the more likely it is that he or she will become more and more isolated as time goes by. People give up on fools. “There is no sense in talking to him,” folks eventually conclude. We have all heard the phrase “a fool’s paradise.” And that phrase is a reflection of how it often goes: having cut himself off from those who could teach him valuable lessons, having blinkered his own vision to keep from seeing the consequences of his own actions, the fool becomes an island unto himself.
But biblically speaking there is one last piece of folly that often attends such folks and it is reflected in that verse from Psalm 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” The last straw, the ultimate piece of damnable folly is to live cut off from God. Actually when we read, “The fools says in his heart, ‘There is no God,'” what that means is not full-blown atheism in the modern sense of claiming that there is no God in existence anywhere. In biblical times there were very few, if any, atheists in that hardcore philosophical sense. More likely what that meant was along the lines of thinking “There is no God HERE.” There is no God who is close enough to see, or be bothered with, my life. So what I do, what I say, what I think, how I behave has nothing to do with God in that God, even if he exists, doesn’t see me anyway. (And if that does not bear some resemblance to what sociologist Christian Smith has termed “moral therapeutic deism,” then I am not sure what would!)
Even this parable’s dialogue is actually a monologue–the only person this rich man talks to is himself! But this isolation is a sign of the man’s basic problem: he neither sees nor cares for anybody but his own self.
The sin of this rich man in Luke 12 is that he has isolated himself from his fellow humanity, from the larger community, from God himself. But then he is interested in no one but his own self. He is not interested in sharing with those who have less. He doesn’t even see such folks. They exist beyond the margins of his consciousness. (I realize that some readers of this may think I am obliquely—or overtly—pointing to a certain prominent political figure in 2016 but honestly, I wrote all of the above several paragraphs three years ago when last this passage was on the Lectionary docket. But if this seems to have current relevance . . . well, that’s the words of Jesus for you.)
The man’s failure is, as such failures always tend to be, a double failure. Not only did he fail to see God, as a consequence he likewise did not take note of all those little reminders of God that surround each of us every day. What are those reminders?
The images of God in our midst.
The more open a person is to God in his or her daily life, the more likely it is that this person will begin to SEE God all over the place: the face of the neighbor is the face of God, the face of the poor is the face of God. But in the case of this rich man, he lost sight not only of that God but of God’s children who were also nearby.
No one had that kind of spiritual vision more than Jesus. Thus, in Jesus we see the exact opposite of this rich man’s fatal flaw of spiritual blindness. Although it is not unusual for Jesus to reach for agricultural images in his parables, still it is interesting that the crop this rich man raised and then wanted to store away for himself only was grain. Wheat. The stuff that becomes the staff of life. But by hoarding it, this man was not a life-sharer or life-giver but someone who deprived others of life. When God says in the end that this fool’s life would be demanded of him, the punishment fit the crime.
But please notice God’s last question: “Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” It is an open, unanswered question. The implication, however, seems to be that by his death, all that life-giving, staff-of-life grain will go to feed the very people he had failed to notice! By his death he became a dispenser of life after all. But not in an heroic way. That does not make this parable’s ending a “happy ending” after all. Yet sometimes it does happen that by death can come new life.
This rich man who ignored God is, of course, a counter-example for what Christians are to be. But that is no surprise since Christians follow a man who once said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
By his death and resurrection Jesus gives us the staff of life. It sets the tone for our own daily dying and rising with Christ, too.
In Luke 12:20 some translations (including the NIV and NRSV, though not the older RSV) have God saying to the rich fool that “this night your life will be demanded of you.” But in the Greek the word rendered as “life” is psyche, the common word for “soul.” It may well be that the sense of this is the taking of the man’s life, but the punch of these words is that it is finally the man’s soul that is at risk. This relates, then, to Luke 9:24-25 where Jesus famously says that if you forfeit your soul for anything to be found in this world, what could you ever give in exchange to get that soul back? Without knowing it, then, the rich fool is trafficking not in the mere physical things of this life but in eternal matters whose import cannot be overstated.
The New York Times has long had a column called “Metropolitan Diary” that features six to eight brief letters sent in by readers who relate real-life experiences in the Big Apple. Many of these anecdotes are examples of kindness and warmth in the midst of a city reputed to be cold and uncaring. Some are laugh-out-loud funny tales about the quirks of people: after all, in a city of 8 million folks, you are bound to see just about everything at least once! But many other anecdotes center on the outrageous wealth that many people in New York City possess as well as the sometimes startling things people do with that wealth.
Here is an example. A couple from the Midwest was visiting New York during a cold stretch of the month of January. As they walked up Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, a bitterly cold wind came up, causing the woman’s ears to get painfully cold. They decided to duck into a boutique to purchase a hat for her. The woman rather quickly found a lovely cashmere knit hat and was about to buy it when her husband noticed the price tag dangling from the cap: $350. They put it back and quickly fled the store. As they came back out onto the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue, however, they saw a woman passing by carrying her little poodle dog–and the dog was wearing that very cashmere knit hat!
Author: Doug Bratt
Few issues seem to more deeply divide North American Christians than the final fate of God’s Jewish people. Will God save them en masse so that all Jews get to experience the peace of God’s new creation? Will the Holy Spirit convert some Jews to the Christian faith before Christ returns? Will God finally grant all Jewish salvation through a faithful relationship with Jesus Christ?
Those are, of course, questions the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday doesn’t explicitly address. Hosea 11 focuses, instead, specifically on 8th century BCE Israel and its relationship to the Lord. Yet the Scriptures often at least indirectly address universal questions by dealing with specific people or occasions.
Earlier in his prophecy, of course, Hosea describes Israel as God’s “wife” when the prophet describes his own relatively young marriage to adulterous Gomer. However, our text speaks of the Lord as Israel’s loving parent.
Of course the Bible generally refers to God as “Father.” Yet God is neither male nor female in the way we usually think of such terms. God has the loving attributes of both a Father and a Mother.
This seems highly providential. After all, God is the perfect Father. Some parents, however, have deeply scarred their children. So if we thought of God only as Father, for instance, some of us might have a hard time trusting the Lord.
That’s a reason we can be thankful that the Bible also uses feminine imagery to describe the Lord.
The Scriptures never explicitly refer to God as our heavenly Mother. Yet they seem to describe God as having some “motherly” characteristics. Psalm 131, for example, compares God to a mother who soothes her baby. The New Testament also compares God to a woman who searches for a lost coin.
Hosea understands about being a dad. He has, after all, raised three children, maybe as a single parent. So perhaps the prophet shouldn’t surprise us when, as he thinks of God’s relationship with Israel, he emphasizes how much God has done for God’s child that is Israel.
“I” statements dominate God’s description of God’s history with Israel verses 1-4. They describe actions largely performed by parents. In verse 9, of course, God insists that God is “God, not man.” Most of our text, however, emphasizes the way God stoops to our level. Based on this, James Mays compares God to a parent who bends down to pick up and cuddle a baby.
We profess that God has only one eternal, natural “child,” the Son we know as Jesus Christ. Israel, then, can only be God’s adopted “child.” That means that God didn’t just free Israel from Egyptian slavery. God also somehow adopted her into God’s family.
Some modern adoptive parents can learn virtually everything about the child they’re adopting. God also knows everything about Israel. Yet God graciously sets God’s love on and chooses Israel to be God’s child in spite of everything God already knows about her. So Israel (and, frankly, you and I) are a bit like child in the orphanage who has special needs whom no one wants to adopt.
Yet we know that bringing any children into the world and raising them always entails some risk. Parents wonder how both children they adopt and those to whom they give birth will turn out. After all, even the most loving parents sometimes have rebellious children. So we shouldn’t be surprised that our loving God’s adopted son Israel turned out to be so radically different from God’s natural Son Jesus Christ.
We sometimes want to at least silently blame parents for their children’s rebellion. Don’t we, after all, sometimes speculate that that rebellious boy’s dad was too demanding or that that troubled woman’s mother was just too overbearing?
Of course, parental flaws sometimes negatively impact our children. Any physical, mental and spiritual health our children enjoy is nothing less than God’s miraculous gift. However, Israel’s plight reminds us that even the most perfect Parent sometimes has rebellious children.
After all, while Jesus is God’s faithful Son who doesn’t count equality with God as something to which to cling, in the Garden, Adam and Eve are God’s rebellious children who try to make themselves (even more than God creates to be) like God. Jesus doesn’t rebel against God, even when Satan ruthlessly tempts him in the desert. In her own wilderness, however, Israel stubbornly rebels against the Lord.
In fact, says Hosea, the more God called to Israel the farther she, like a rambunctious toddler, ran away from the Lord.
Jesus is the faithful Son who submits to God’s will, even though it costs him his life on the cross. Israel is the rebellious son who relentlessly resists God’s will. God called Israel the adopted son to bring God’s salvation to the world. However, God had to send God’s natural Son Jesus into the world to fulfill that mission because God’s adopted child Israel failed to do so.
As a result, God warns in verse 5, some Israelites will flee the advancing Assyrians by literally returning to Egypt. However, since “Egypt” is also a biblical symbol of exile and slavery, God is also warning that the Assyrians will cart many, if not most of God’s rebellious children that are the Israelites into exile.
Sometimes parents must lovingly punish their children. Such punishment generally hurts the parents more than it hurts their children. We might say something similar about God’s discipline of Israel. God must punish Israel for her rebellion. Yet in verse 7 God still refers to her not as “spoiled brats,” or naughty children, but as “my people.”
So while Israel has strained her relationship with the Lord, God has not yet let her break it. That’s why God’s expression of anguish in verses 8-9 shouldn’t surprise us. Elizabeth Achtemeier says it’s as if God breaks out in wrenching sobs there. Those verses show the Lord to be like a loving parent who agonizes over the suffering his daughter’s rebellion has brought on herself.
In fact, God says God simply can’t give up God’s adopted child that is Israel. After all, God isn’t like some frustrated parents who simply abandon their children to their rebellious ways. God is, as God says in verse 9, “God, and not man – the Holy One” in Israel’s midst.
Our Lord is a holy God. That means that God is different than anything or anyone else. While God created people to be in some ways much like God, God remains qualitatively different from all human beings and other creatures.
Yet Hosea reminds us that this wholly other God is also willing to be in God’s people’s midst. This God whom not even heaven and earth can contain is willing to limit himself by bending down to “feed” and care for God’s children. We see that, of course, most clearly in God’s Son becoming one of us in Mary’s womb.
So while parents may kick a rebellious child out of their house, God our Father is completely different. God’s love is, after all, inexhaustible. The Lord can’t stop loving, even in the face of faithlessness and refusal to return God’s love. God will not abandon God’s people, whom God lovingly adopted, because God is a God who is love.
God is also completely sovereign. Not even Israel’s sinfulness can change that. So while Israel will not and does not repent, her attitudes and actions can’t, finally, dictate what God will do. God will be what God is — sovereignly loving. So beyond Israel’s rebellion, beyond Assyria’s conquests, beyond human will and working, God’s love will triumph. God’s holiness and sovereignty rule the world. So nothing in all creation can overcome, or as Paul writes, separate us from that love.
God’s unmerited grace, not human sinfulness, rules the day. At the cross, of course, God’s love and anger with sin merge into one mighty flood that nearly destroys Jesus. At Jesus’ empty tomb, however, God’s love spreads beyond Israel to people from all over the world.
Yet Paul suggests that God still somehow includes Israel in that sovereign love. By the Holy Spirit, God lovingly creates a new Israel that’s composed of both Jews and Gentiles. It was humans, after all, that put God’s only natural Son, Jesus, to death. Yet God refuses to surrender the world God loves to the effects of the universal sin and death that so clearly demonstrates.
Instead, God’s sovereign love raises Christ from the grave and wins victory over all wrong. That sovereign love freely offers to people everywhere a new life in God’s blessed future. God’s unmerited grace rules human history in such a way that we can only receive it with our faith.
The Bible gives ample testimony to the fact that God eventually lets some people have their rebellious way. However, our text at least suggests that God’s grace may somehow scoop up far more people than we might assume. It may even eventually snatch people we love who don’t yet love the Lord from the brink of hell. After all, God’s parental love, not human sin, has the last word.
In The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays, Robert Merrihew Adams writes, “Ideal love isn’t just benevolence. ‘I wish you well.’ It’s desire for personal relationship involving union of some kind. The lover doesn’t just want the beloved to be served; the lover wants to be the one doing the serving. He wants closeness. And a mother feels terrible if she fails to protect her child from being scalded by a coffeemaker whose cord she didn’t tuck away out of reach; she feels terrible that she’s the one who failed.
Yes, God wants our love and praise, but not just because it would be good for us. God wants it because God wants us; God actually wants a kind of union with creatures like us. God is like a jealous husband. God is like a jealous parent. Christ gave himself up for the church because it was his bride. God wants union, fellowship.”
Author: Stan Mast
The opportunity to preach on Psalm 49 comes at a particularly appropriate time in American history. The whole issue of income inequality has troubled our society for quite a while now, but it has become a hot button topic in the campaign for President. One of the candidates is a non-political figure who claimed very loudly that his riches and his business experience and his intelligence made him the person to solve America’s problems, including income inequality. On the other side was a career politician of a socialist stripe who argued for a very different solution to income inequality. Psalm 49 speaks to the issue of riches and poverty, not by giving a capitalist or a socialist solution, but by saying that riches don’t really matter in the end. “But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish.”
Now, that conclusion doesn’t excuse income inequality. It would be wrong to use Psalm 49 as an opiate to calm the poor into accepting their lot in life. In many other places, God calls God’s people to treat the poor with mercy and justice, in both our individual lives and in our national priorities. The fact that death comes to both rich and poor is not an excuse to abuse, neglect, or ignore the poor. It is a reminder that life is not always it seems. In real life it seems that the rich always win and the poor always lose, but Psalm 49 shows us another reality.
It is not a reality we would see if someone didn’t show us; it’s not obvious common sense. So the author of Psalm 49 begins with a prophet-like shout to wake us up. “Hear this, all you people; listen, all who live in this world….” Notice that the Psalmist addresses the whole world, not just Israel. He is addressing a fundamental human concern, not a concern unique to the redeemed. Indeed, says one commentator, “This Psalm is one of those places where the Bible forsakes, as it were, the greater heights of divine truth in order to concentrate man’s attention on the lowest step of its ascent. The fear of the Lord, the Psalmist tells us elsewhere, is the very beginning of wisdom, and Psalm 49 is a plain, straightforward summons to a godly fear.”
Fear is at the heart of the Psalm. “Why should I fear when evil days come, when wicked deceivers surround me—those who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches?” Psalm 49 identifies two audiences: the poor who are afraid and don’t need to be, and the rich who are not afraid and should be. We should ask our congregation with whom they identify. The Psalm identifies with the poor, comforting them with the assurance that things aren’t as they seem to be.
The Psalmist uses a riddle to communicate that alternate reality. The prophetic shout of verse 1 quickly becomes the soft measured voice of a wise teacher, maybe even a teacher so skilled in her craft that she uses music to get the message across (“with a harp I will expound my riddle”). I will sing you a riddle that will calm your fear of the almighty rich who oppress you.
Those last words are important. Psalm 49 is not a condemnation of the rich as a class. God counts some rich folks as among his most beloved children; think of Abraham and Job. By his grace, God squeezes some rich folks through the eye of a needle. Psalm 49 is talking about the rich who “trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches,” and who are “wicked deceivers.”
In “evil days,” when hard times come, it is easy for the “have’s” to oppress the “have not’s” by using their wealth to make the poor poorer. How? In deceptive ways that most of us don’t see: buying up all the foreclosed property to build an empire of rental properties that are now rented to the poor; loaning to the poor at rates guaranteed to keep them poor; cutting wages and benefits to “save the company” which sometimes means “to keep the profits high enough to make me richer.” Aren’t these simply wise business practices? Or are they wicked deceptions? When do the rich become “wicked deceivers?” It’s not for me to judge.
And, in fact, the Psalmist doesn’t judge any particular actions of the rich, only the attitudes of trusting and boasting. Psalm 49 aims not to condemn the rich, but to comfort the poor with the knowledge that the rich are just like them in one fundamental way. We all die. No amount of money can fend off the great Enemy forever. In real life it seems that income inequality makes all the difference, but in REAL life it turns that income doesn’t matter at all. In a world that sees wealth and poverty as measures of worth and dignity, says Brueggemann, Psalm 49 reminds us that wealth is “not only irrelevant to worth and meaning, but misleading and false. The well-being and power the rich imagine they have is in fact of no consequence.”
In verses 7-9, the Psalmist borrows an idiom from Israel’s legal system to make his point. Someone accused of a serious crime and sentenced to death could pay a large sum of money to have his life spared. That money was a “ransom of life.” The Psalmist uses that term to say that no amount of money could buy a wealthy person eternal life. As an “immortality strategy,” a ransom was a bust, because “the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough—that he should live forever and not see decay.”
The wealthy who deceive others in their quest for wealth also deceive themselves about the purchasing power of their wealth. Seeking some sort of immortality by naming land and buildings after themselves, they will be surprised when they will end up like everyone else, six feet under that land. Everyone should see that, but the pomp and power that comes with wealth makes most people forget that. So, the Psalmist pens this instructive poem that ends both of its major sections (verses 12 and 20) with his riddle. “But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish.”
“Death is the great negation. The very wealth thought to be a ransom is lost in death. The pomp and honor that wealth bought is lost in death. Death is the great equalizer.” (Mays) The money heaped up over the years is left to others. The fine homes built to last for years are exchanged for tombs that last “for endless generations.” The lands bearing their names become anonymous holes in the ground, unless their names are chiseled into headstones. Wealth comes to nothing in the end.
So ends the reading from the lectionary for today. Of course, anyone can see that the writers of the lectionary have performed a lection-ectomy. That’s too bad because the Psalmist goes on to not only reiterate his main point, but to also make a central Gospel point. Not content with reminding us of the general truth about the end of both rich and poor, the Psalmist goes on to tell us a special truth we could never guess without a word from God. What no amount of human wealth could ever do, God will do, and has done.
Verse 15 opens with that shortest summary of the Gospel, “But God.” Humans could never do this, but God has done it. The Hebrew has a little word there that means “surely.” It is a sure thing. As surely as all humans die, regardless of their wealth or poverty, so surely God can “redeem our lives from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.”
This is a surprising word in the Old Testament. For centuries God’s people knew about deliverance from all kinds of trouble, but not about permanent deliverance from death. Here we have at least a hint of that glorious truth about the resurrection and the life that would be revealed with clarity and power by Jesus in passages like John 11:25,26. We cannot pay a ransom for our lives, but God paid a ransom for us by sending his Son. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus, who gave his life as a ransom for all men….” (I Tim. 2:5,6)
Death may take all humans from this life, but for people who trust the Risen Christ, death is not the end. God in Christ will “take me to himself (verse 15).” The word “take” there is the very verb used in Genesis 5:24 and II Kings 2:9-11 to describe the end of the lives of Enoch and Elijah.
If we continue in our reading of this Psalm beyond the section chosen by the RCL, we can preach not only sobering truths about the final destiny of both rich and poor, but also saving truths about the final destiny of all who give their lives and love to the one who gave his life as a ransom for many. Death is the great negation. Jesus is the great affirmation. Death levels the playing field. Jesus raises us up to life everlasting. That truth not only comforts us in the face of life’s great inequities, but also challenges us to help both rich and poor find equality in Christ.
The feature article in the late February, 2016 issue of Time magazine was all about Alzheimer’s Disease, but it spilled a good deal of ink on the related subject of longevity and what people do to live longer. There are pills and exercise and diet and meditation and strange new plans to join brains to computers to prolong memory even after the body is dead. In spite of all those efforts, all have to agree that death will come to us all.
One sub-article talked about the ways people cope with that fact. Some engage in what a researcher called “the voluntary affirmation of the obligatory.” “A lot of our fear of death is about losing the things we’ve built up…. But [when] elderly people let go of their attachment to these things… they let go of some of their fear.” In other words, instead of doing what the wealthy do in Psalm 49, folks can cope with their fear of death by letting go of their wealth.
Other people cope with death by seeing themselves as part of something that will outlive them, such as family or a company or a charity or their country or their church. And still others just become “bitterly disenfranchised,” regretting how they have lived their lives and fantasizing about being Elvis or Lady Gaga.
Time had nothing better to offer than these possibilities, ending with this bittersweet thought. “Of course death, even for the most transcendent among us, will never be a thing to be anticipated with joy. In some ways, it is life’s great punch line—an annihilation of the self at the point where that self has gotten wiser and better than it’s ever been before.”
The Psalmist didn’t see it that way, even though he lived hundreds of years before Paul wrote this to the Philippians. “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far….” (Phil. 1:23)
If you need a great story about a rich man who foolishly put his trust in his wealth, you can’t do better than the parable Jesus told in the Lectionary reading from the Gospels for today. It’s found in Luke 12:13-21.
Author: Scott Hoezee
In his book The Divine Conspiracy Dallas Willard claimed we live in a strange time when trite slogans fill our lives. We live in a world where one of the best-known jingles of the last quarter-century was “Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener. That is what I really want to be. For if I were an Oscar Meyer wiener, everyone would be in love with me.” But, Dallas Willard asks, just think of what it means to want to be a weenie. Think of what it means that we all regard this as cute. Reflect on the fact that years ago, throngs of parents lined up to let their children audition to sing just this song in TV commercials and that furthermore, most of those same parents went home deeply disappointed that their son or daughter would not get to croon this weenie wish in front of millions of people.
But in our trite society of shrunken horizons, we scarcely bat an eye at such a slogan. Similarly, we don’t pay much mind to other phrases. “Everything I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten.” “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” Even slogans that try to do something noble are sometimes as hollow as wishing you were a weenie. It’s all pretty much the same drivel. In such a time as this, can we even conceive of what ought to be the real slogan of our lives: “Set your minds on things above where Christ is, not on earthly things.”
Is that the goal of our lives? And how do we know? After all in Colossians 3 Paul draws a contrast for his readers between how they used to live without Jesus and how they now live in Christ. It’s your typical “before and after” portrait–the kind of testimonies heard at AA meetings: “Once I started out every morning with a tumbler of scotch and ended the day with a fifth of Wild Turkey, but now I’m happy with coffee and Diet 7-Up.”
And so also Paul says, “My friends at Colosse, once you talked dirty, went to sexual orgies, drank yourself into stupors, and shook your fists in fury at people in the marketplace. But now you know Jesus and so you don’t do any of that anymore.” Before and after. It obviously applied vividly to the Colossians in that pagan Greco-Roman environment.
But it doesn’t always apply so neatly to some of the people to whom many of us preach each week. If we asked the people in the average church to form a line behind a microphone to share their stories, it would not take long before most would start to sound like echoes of each other. And very few would have particularly dramatic before-and-after testimonies. Many, in fact, might say “I can’t remember ever not being a Christian. I was baptized as an infant, raised in a Christian home, went to Christian schools . . .”
Or, imagine someone’s asking the average weekly church attender, “How does being a Christian affect your life on the average day or week?” What might people say? “Well, I go to church every Sunday. I was a deacon a couple of years ago and now I’m on the building committee. I contribute to the general fund and make sure my kids go to Sunday school and youth group.” But suppose this other person said, “No, no, no: I don’t mean church stuff. What does being a Christian mean the rest of the week? What do you do that makes you different from some of our other neighbors who don’t claim to be Christians?”
What might folks say? Do we have a firm sense of how radical Christ is to influence our lives, our perspectives, our . . . everything? What does it mean to live out our lives on this earth and yet have our minds “set above” where Christ is? Does this make us too other-worldly minded to be of any earthly good? Or is this in fact eminently practical on this earth if we let our Christ-focus influence us correctly? And, in fact, such practical payoff for this heavenly focus is exactly Paul’s point. The Lectionary stops this reading at verse 11 but you really need verses 12-17 to make sense of this passage, and especially you need that last verse where Paul invokes what may well be the single most explosive word in the New Testament: Whatever.
Of course, these days that word sounds rather different in our ears. Today this is a key word in a morally sloppy vocabulary. Someone delivers a stern lecture on the need for sexual sanity, and some people just roll their eyes and sneer, “Whatever.” A couple walks past in a public park, groping and fondling one another’s backsides, and people shrug it off with, “Whatever.” In contemporary discourse “Whatever” has come to mean the same thing as “to each his own” or “who cares” or “live and let live.”
But in the mouth of Paul as we find this word in Colossians 3:17, “whatever” takes on a devastatingly powerful force. “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus.” That phrase is breathtaking in its sweep. Because what that means is that the horizons of Jesus’ Lordship are limitless.
But it also means we cannot overstate what parts of life need to be Christian. They all do. For instance, the Christian life is a never-ending exercise in gratitude. And so when the bagger at the A&P carries our groceries out for us, we say thank you. The same goes for the kid who refills the water glass at a restaurant: we need to get in the habit of saying “Thank you” every time he fills it up. This may seem like a minor suggestion to make in a sermon on Colossians 3 but really . . . in an increasingly slovenly, ungrateful society of entitlement it also may make a difference. Remember: whatever.
Or, how about something else Paul talks about in Colossians 3: the nurturing of patience, which leads also to our ability to be kind and gentle with other people. Our society, of course, has a conspiracy against patience, and we buy right into it mostly without even realizing it. We’re a people on the move and we’ve more or less come to expect that we deserve to press on without delays of any kind. We’ve got microwaves to heat up our coffee in a flash, but even still we pace in front of the microwave, checking the digital display repeatedly during that interminable 45 seconds. For the last few years we’ve sped up our gas station stops by being able to swipe our own credit cards at the pump. But that’s not fast enough anymore and so now Mobil will give you a little wand to attach to your key chain: wave it in front of a little sensor on the pump and in less than a second you’re all set. It has gotten so we want a “Speed Pass” to get us through all of life and not just life’s toll booths.
On the highways road rage boils for even the slightest of slowdowns. Observe most any intersection and you will see one, two, three, sometimes four cars and trucks speeding through the first part of the red light, greatly endangering lives (and you can be well-assured that very few of those vehicles sneaking under the red light are on their way to the hospital with a woman in active labor. Mostly they’re just on their way to Home Depot for more duct tape or Benny’s Bagel & Latté Emporium for a mid-morning repast).
Can the ascended Lord Jesus be the goal of our lives on the highway, at the gas pump or in the express lane at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket? Can we slow down long enough to be considerate and loving, gentle and kind to those around us? Do we even realize those things have something to do with Jesus? Remember: whatever.
Or suppose you determine to let the reality of Jesus as Lord shape the way you think about even ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the like. Suppose you try to pray for these people despite the fact that they have declared themselves our enemies (and act accordingly). Suppose your mind’s resting place in heaven where Christ is seated causes you to resist the rhetoric of revenge and hatred and blind bigotry that has become the staple of conversation at who knows how many restaurants, truck stops, bars, and cable talk shows. That doesn’t mean you give up on the pursuit of justice or that you don’t also pray that we can stop future acts of terror. But it means that you’re going to let your Lord in heaven shape your thinking in also this area. Remember: whatever.
Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, whether in making selections on Netflix or deciding whether or not to have another martini, whether interacting with a bag boy or dealing with a slowpoke driver, whether mapping out your weekend or calculating your taxes–whatever you do, find a way to do it in the name of the ascended Lord.
The little choices of life matter, because in the long run they’re not so little. It is in the mundane that people sense the eternal, in the quiet acts of life that the holy shines through. The irony and tension of the Christian life, as also Paul recognized, is that although our focus is to be on the ascended Lord Jesus and not on “earthly things,” whether or not we have that proper focus will show precisely in how we make use of earthly things. Few challenges could be greater.
But then few applications of what Christianity is all about are as practical as all this. Is there anything particularly holy about trudging off to work or school, about driving to the store or playing with your child, about greeting your co-workers or smiling at strangers? Well, those are holy things if God’s Spirit is in all of it. And if the Spirit of the Lord of the cosmos really is there, then everything you do has a shot at being at least a little different, a little better, and maybe sometimes a lot better. That’s true of everything. Everything. Remember: whatever.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks has written engaging accounts of a good many malfunctions of the human brain. One such vignette was about a hapless man who had a kind of visual agnosia. Jerry’s eyes worked perfectly well–he had 20/20 vision. But an accident once damaged the small section of Jerry’s brain that sorts out and makes sense of visual data. So Jerry could look you full in the face but he couldn’t really see your face. He could never recognize anyone because his mind could not assemble the raw visual data. So what Jerry saw when looking at you was like one of those crazy Picasso paintings in which the nose is where the ear is supposed to be and the ear is stuck on a chin and the eyes are floating who knows where! Jerry’s eyes saw all the pieces but his mind could not assemble them.
In this world, most everyone sees the same things, reads the same papers, watches the same events unfold live on CNN. Without the framework of heaven to help make some kind of sense of it all, most folks see a booming, buzzing confusion. There is no way to assemble all this data into a meaningful picture (much less one that suggests a better way to live in the face of it all). But if our minds are set in heaven where Christ is seated, then although we hardly have all the answers (and surely still feel mighty confused ourselves at times), we do have a major advantage in tracing out a better, more meaningful way to live, to minister, and to witness than would be true if we could not see Jesus as Lord in the first place.